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Napoleon is failed Anglo propaganda

A half-wit man-child, apparently. Credit: IMDb/Napoleon

November 24, 2023 - 11:45am

The first clips of Ridley Scott’s Napoleon took the world by storm faster than the Grande Armée itself. The alliance of director and subject promised a triumph. Sadly, it delivered a dud.

Squeezing 20 years of continent-wide political and military tumult into 158 minutes was always going to leave important chapters on the chopping block, from Napoleon’s stellar first Italian campaign to his world-transforming record as an extremely competent administrator and reformist. Scott did not help his case with Bonaparte purists by bizarrely arguing that historians’ criticisms weren’t worth his time because they “weren’t there” during the Napoleonic Wars.

Some liberties were so jarring as to remove the viewer from the cinematic experience. Napoleon charges sabre-first on his horse like an impatient captain at the first opportunity. The Battle of Austerlitz, his greatest triumph, becomes a cartoonish mousetrap on ice. Waterloo is reduced to a frontal scrum. Creative liberties ought to make a film better, but here these grand and bloody era-defining battles instead become dull, one-dimensional affairs.

Yet the film’s main flaw is its asinine plot, and apparent indecision as to what it wants to be. Scott evidently wanted to cover Napoleon from crib to coffin, but the film lacks any convincing narrative thread to hold it. My best guess is that the director wanted to make a Napoleon and Josephine film. Given Vanessa’s Kirby’s acting chops, there probably is a decent Josephine crushed under this underwhelming Napoleon.

There is plenty of interest in the story of a widowed aristocratic snob who goes from lover to lover to protect herself, until she’s tossed into the arms of a scruffy Corsican; his love for her is met with cool indifference, before their power dynamic changes and the marriage progressively implodes. But Joaquin Phoenix’s offbeat performance results in a love story that is incredibly cold, only warmed up slightly by Napoleon’s incredibly passionate real-life letters to Josephine.

Napoleon was a divisive man: jealous and petty, but occasionally magnanimous. He was undeniably a tyrant but also ushered in political liberalism across Europe. A giant to the French, he remains an ogre to the English. What he was not, however, was a half-wit man-child. Phoenix plays Napoleon as a stupid figure, a characterisation the film struggles to square with the reality that the idiot depicted somehow became the most powerful man in Europe. 

Phoenix claimed that he wanted to explore this “petit petulant tyrant”, harking back to Britain’s viciously effective anti-Bonaparte cartoons. When the film (finally) ends, the black screen lists the casualties of Boney’s wars. This is a blatant attempt to induce guilt in any viewers who might still have any admiration for Napoleon after such a character assassination. Yet the film itself does not earn the right to be so moralistic when it never fully exploits the angle of Napoleon as a bloodthirsty and callous ogre. 

As a one-eyed Frenchman, I would have preferred a more heroic portrayal, but as a filmgoer I would have gladly settled for a movie about an increasingly egotistical and tyrannical dictator, rather than an unconvincing melodrama and Wikipedia-deep exploration of the Napoleonic biggest hits. Even as a piece of Anglo propaganda, the film falls flat on its face.

Scott had so many other angles to explore. His film could have been about Napoleon’s increasing obsession with winning the great power rivalry with England, but we are left guessing as to the strategic motives behind most of the battles in front of us. There is a convincing rags-to-riches story somewhere in the opening quarter of the film, where between the siege of Toulon and his Brumaire coup Napoleon climbs the greasy pole amid significant political chaos. Yet this is quickly discarded so as to move on to Phoenix’s wooden love story with Kirby.

Scott was provided with some of the richest source material in history and managed to suck all the grandeur from it. To make things worse, he added a near-permanent grey filter which aims for faux-gritty war realism but which only manages to neuter the gorgeous and largely historically accurate uniforms his teams have managed to assemble. 

All in all, we are left with a Napoleon that will ultimately be forgotten, unlike its source material.


François Valentin is co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast and a Senior Researcher at Onward’s Social Fabric Programme.

Valen10Francois

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Nell Clover
Nell Clover
5 months ago

A $200m spin-off of the Napoleon character in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but with fewer jokes and less lighting.

Tony Price
Tony Price
5 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Yup – the short, dead Dude.

John Murray
John Murray
5 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

I’ve always been partial to Ian Holm’s Napoleon in Time Bandits who loves the dwarfs because they are shorter than he is.

Last edited 5 months ago by John Murray
Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
5 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

I too have waited with much anticipation for an old fashioned heroic war drama – and have now read many reviews trashing Phoenix’s performance, and the general incoherence of the Josephine-Centered soap opera (excellent review imho -by Kyle Smith in the WSJ – makes similar points and refers to the movie as possibly the 85 yr old Scott as having met his Waterloo).

I’m going to see it Sunday (here in Brazil – English with português subtitles) – and will reserve judgment as best i can, but it will be hard to separate Phoenix from His Joker.

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
5 months ago

A giant to the French, he remains an ogre to the English. 

Er, no. We beat him.

Geoff W
Geoff W
5 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

You and whose army?

Niall Cusack
Niall Cusack
5 months ago
Reply to  Geoff W

The Prussian: Blücher, sine quo non.

Last edited 5 months ago by Niall Cusack
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Niall Cusack

With a little help from the bungling Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy.

William Shaw
William Shaw
5 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

We can be thankful for his Napoleonic code that is totally incompatible with English common law and places an impermeable barrier between us and the EU… despite some traitorous politicians being under the illusion that compatibility is possible.

Last edited 5 months ago by William Shaw
Jerry Carroll
JC
Jerry Carroll
5 months ago
Reply to  William Shaw

Nappy’s centralizing philosophy of rule laid the groundwork for authoritarianism and then totalitarianism. He was correctly labeled The Monster.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
4 months ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

It is utter stupid rubbish to accuse Bonaparte of totalitarianism. France has never been under anything resembling totalitarian rule.

Andrew Fisher
AF
Andrew Fisher
4 months ago
Reply to  William Shaw

I’m a democrat, dunno about you, so the British people decided to join the then EEC in 1975 and leave it in 2016. “Traitorous politicians – ones who don’t agree with you!

I suppose Brexit, but the Common Law is completely compatible with being in the EU, which we were for 40 years. The supremacy of EU law over national law in many areas has nothing to do with it.

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
5 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

Clearly, Wellington beat him (by squishing the much-vaunted Imperial Guard like a bug – as Blücher was arriving) This is what led to the general rout as the French ran for their lives toward Paris.

Blücher’s presence at the last minute didn’t hurt, but Wellington learned in the Peninsula how to defeat Napoleon’s Generals: keep the infantry on the far side of a ridge while Napoleon’s 9-inch guns pounded away, then spring out as the French infantry charged up the slope. This is why Wellington selected the Waterloo area hill with a ridge a few days before Napoleon was sighted.

Victor Hugo (in an entire book at the beginning of Volume 2 or 3 of Les Miserables) tried to make Napoleon appear to have lost because of Bad Luck – and Wellington seem like a lucky sore winner.

But the bottom line is, Wellington’s mostly British troops (the Belgians had run away long before) is what put the knife in. With Blücher, they would have won anyway if Wellington’s infantry and Calvary had not routed the Imperial Guard. Blucher was instrumental in helping to mop up the French and the “Emperor”.

Last edited 5 months ago by Richard Pearse
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
4 months ago
Reply to  Richard Pearse

Of course the Russians, Austrians and Prussians had absolutely nothing to do with Napoleon’s eventual defeat…..

Wellington at least did not underestimate him.

Last edited 4 months ago by Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
4 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

With a huge amount of help from the Russians and the Prussians, without whom “we” would have lost at Waterloo. God, you sound like some jingoistic schoolboy…

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
4 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

“We”. How quaint, from the latter day armchair warrior, nearly 200 years and a few hundred miles from any danger! This is the sort of thing a fourth former might say …..

And of course, an entirely irrelevant comment. I think many of the almost unhinged comments on here actually indicate rather convincingly the ongoing Napoleon-phobia of many English.

Last edited 4 months ago by Andrew Fisher
R M
2
R M
5 months ago

Sounds like Ridley Scott has touched a nerve across the Channel.

William Shaw
William Shaw
5 months ago
Reply to  R M

Not too dissimilar to the ridiculously false depiction of William Wallace in Braveheart which many Scots have adopted as truth.

Last edited 5 months ago by William Shaw
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  William Shaw

Mel Gibson as a 5.5” Antipodean pygmy was a poor choice for Wallace who was reputed to be over 6’…….a veritable giant by 13th century standards.

Geoff W
Geoff W
5 months ago

Wikipedia gives Mel Gibson’s height as 5’8″ – and I believe that, ‘cos I saw him on stage years ago.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
5 months ago

Gibson is 5 foot 10 but never mind. The average Hollywood movie star is 5.5.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

Still a ‘titch’ compared to Wallace.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
4 months ago

But 5′ 10″ is closer to 6 feet, if indeed Wallace actually was when the average height was much less, than your estimation of Gibson as a “pygmy”! This is hardly a major fault of the film, which has bucket loads. Still, it was just rousing popular entertainment, with Hollywood as usual finding it culturally easy to caricature the English.

Michael Walsh
MW
Michael Walsh
5 months ago

The film may well stink, but so did Napoleon. The archetype of the modern totalitarian, he caused more European deaths than an outbreak of the Plague. But because he looms so large in their history, the French (see above) are stuck with him as the icon of their national identity. Kind of like how India is similarly stuck with the diapered megalomaniac.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
4 months ago
Reply to  Michael Walsh

Napoleon was a dictator and even a tyrant and undoubtedly caused many deaths in wars, though his opponents were as much at fault. However he certainly did not usher in anything remotely resembling totalitarianism, creating a Civil Code and a hybrid conservative – liberal regime in France and other European countries. His Civil Code is widely used to this day.

As to Gandhi (presumably), your comments are utterly ludicrous. You can criticise him in many ways, though he almost single handedly prevented thousands of deaths in communal riots. However he actually largely eschewed political power, which would have been his for the asking, so megalomaniac he was not.

Last edited 4 months ago by Andrew Fisher
Michael Walsh
Michael Walsh
4 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

I forgot to add: unabashedly racist, scat-fixated megalomaniac. How often did he change that damned diaper anyway?
Simp.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
5 months ago

Only the ignorant take their history from films. To find out what happened, the inquisitive must read books, a lot of them. And you have to be careful with them because each author has his or her (their?– no!) bias and many an ox to gore.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
4 months ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

I agree, but many people are ignorant. Here is an opportunity to make a rousing and entertaining film but still get basic facts correct! But Scott didn’t do so.

This is Napoleon for goodness sake – whatever your take he was an extraordinary character. You just don’t have to make stuff up!!. Scott shows himself to be a philistine moron in dismissing these concerns.

Last edited 4 months ago by Andrew Fisher
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago

He did at least found the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur * (Legion of Honour) which is still flourishing today and amongst other things provides a first class education for girls in two superb schools near Paris.

(*Founded in 1802.)

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
5 months ago

Love this line; “… rather than an unconvincing melodrama and Wikipedia-deep exploration of the Napoleonic biggest hits.”

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
4 months ago

It’s rather disappointing that the comments have immediately started discussing Napoleon the historical figure and not the film!

I have yet to see it, but am already expecting to dislike it, because of what I know are a number of entirely made up scenes. Of course in the progressive era the film has to foreground Josephine. Napoleon may well have been in love with her, even obsessed. However contrary to modern sensibilities this may be, this just isn’t that important historically, any more than the charms or otherwise of Anne Boleyn were. She didn’t bear the ruler children, and so was ruthlessly ditched.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
5 months ago

I am surprised that it is much watched in France. Who there needs any foreign material, in any medium, about Napoleon? Domestic production will satisfy the market until the End of Days.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
5 months ago

I think Scott’s response to these sort of articles was “Go cry more.” There is no point in engaging with French people on the subject. He was the mass-murdering culmination of the revolution, which itself was no nirvana. The best part of the article was the cant that Bonaparte “ushered in political liberalism across Europe” is a revisionist lie – his warmongering set reform on the continent back by a hundred years at least. The sixth paragraph pretty much sums it up. What he definitely did usher in was a succession of European leaders who saw themselves in his image; glory-hungry, authoritarian and utterly self-serving. The rest of Europe saw this and the French need to at least see why this “image” was formed. They certainly don’t get it in school or culture judging by the author’s stated views. It is a tragedy that he is still regarded as the emblematic Frenchman. The trouble with the author’s desired arc for the film is that Bonaparte was egotistical and tyrannical from the start of his rule (I would say out of necessity to bring order to the chaos of the constant revolving door of revolutionary governments). He didn’t become more hungry for glory, it was baked in very early on.
On to the film: I do agree with certain points such as 159 minutes not being enough for a subject of such scope. But is this not the studio’s decision, not Mr Scott’s? Also where is the market for such lengthy historical epics? I can’t think of any precedent even though I would like to see them. Battles have always been hard to portray on film, even harder to portray the tactical genius which Bonaparte undoubtedly had, without resorting to maps and troop movements. The battle in Gladiator was almost comical (all those roman soldiers hanging off the huge Germanic warlord) and Kingdom of Heaven was definitely scrum-heavy. My take is that this is probably the most accurate way of depicting battles before rifles and machine guns as everything was astonishingly close-range (even musket-fire was conducted at dozens of yards rather than hundreds). The author’s insistence that Bonaparte was not an idiot belies his obvious human frailties (which even he admitted in his letters) when it came to the opposite sex, his overarching military strategy which failed utterly and ultimately condemned France to second and then third-tier status once Prussia and then Germany had risen over the next two centuries, his political missteps which were numerous and his infamous “code” which laid the groundwork for future dictators (especially in Latin America) and has quietly been receding ever since the 20th century with Romania dropping the code from its laws in 2011. He may not have been an idiot but he was clearly out of his depth on any terrain aside from the battlefield.
That all said, I would love to see the French pro-Napoleon riposte. Over to you Grenouilles!

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
4 months ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

Loads of 20:20 hindsight in there! Plus a large dose of Anglo taking sides! I wish that review hadn’t mentioned this, because that’s not what the many criticisms of this film are about.

Regarding your anti Napoleon comments: Much of Europe actually in fact went over to French alliance and were heavily influenced by the French. They could afterwards dispense with his Civil Code if they wanted; many did not. Napoleon was trying to establish an order, wasn’t a revolutionary and posed little threat to the other crowned heads of Europe as such. The British were largely responsible for funding the continuing the war and stopping any permanent settlement at every turn, in addition to Napoleon’s own undoubted missteps. You can see why the British did, but they certainly did. So “we” share some of the blame for the ongoing carnage.

You also talk as if one man authoritarian and expansionist rule were invented by Napoleon. What about Frederick the Great, Louis 14th, Peter or Catherine the Great – or for that matter “our” William 3rd, who had less power but embroiled England in foreign wars largely for his Orangist ends? The problems of post independence Latin America are deeply structural and have little to do with the Civil Code. Presumably on similar grounds, the British parliamentary system and common law are to be condemned on the basis of tyranny emerging in many ex British colonies in Africa?

Last edited 4 months ago by Andrew Fisher
Mark Kennedy
Mark Kennedy
4 months ago

When the half-wit man-child was asked about military strategy, he replied that it was the art of using “time and space,” adding, “I am more chary of the former than the latter. Space once lost can be recovered: time, never. I may lose a battle, but I shall never lose a minute.”

Some half-wit. Would-be generals, pay close attention. When it comes to deploying armies to best strategic advantage, get there first with the most.

Last edited 4 months ago by Mark Kennedy
Johann Strauss
JS
Johann Strauss
5 months ago

If I’m not mistaken Bonaparte was eventually defeated by the British at the battle of Waterloo. Yet another failed, incompetent Frenchman with a massive ego way in excess of his ability, a bit like Charles de Gaulle and Macron!

Geoff W
Geoff W
5 months ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

The British and the Prussians, yes. And I did hear a rumour that there were a few Belgians and Dutchmen about.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
5 months ago
Reply to  Geoff W

Wellington said of the mixed bag he led, “I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but, by God, they frighten me.”

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Geoff W

Dutchmen yes, Belgiums no*.

(*Not invented until 1830.)

Peter B
PB
Peter B
4 months ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

I’m no fan of Napoleon, but I think it’s difficult to label him both “failed” and “incompetent”. What paragons are you comparing him to ? Can’t be any current national leader surely ?
Certainly, he ultimately failed, but much of what he did has lasted (judicial code, government structures). One of the problems of contemporary France is that they’ve largely lost the meritocratic spirit that thrived under Napoleon who memorably said “Every French soldier carries a marshal’s baton in his knapsack.” And certainly not an incompetent general.
Still glad we saw him off in 1815 though – it needed doing. We’ve been allies with the French pretty much ever since, though it sometimes doesn’t seem like it !

John Owens
John Owens
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

He may have waged war across Europe leading to the deaths of millions, but he had good laws. Really?

Only deserving condemnation in my view

Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago
Reply to  John Owens

I didn’t say they were “good” – merely that they have lasted and were successfully exported and retained in other countries. I’m not a legal expert in any way, so can only really say they are different. I probably prefer the UK/Anglosphere common law system. And that’s at the root of some of our cultural differences with the EU.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
4 months ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

What a stupid remark and idiotic Francophobia! This is like the worst form of schoolboy abuse. Ah, it was just the Battle of Waterloo then….

The British plus three other major powers (Russia, Austria and Prussia) were required to defeat Napoleon. The 3 others carried far more of the military burden and suffering than the British did. Our efforts in the Peninsular War were a side show by comparison.

The comparison of de Gaulle, a great if as always flawed man, and Macron, is utterly ridiculous as well.

Last edited 4 months ago by Andrew Fisher
Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Not entirely accurate. Britain almost single-handedly ran the naval campaign and blockade of France. Britain alone went the entire distance of the Napoleonic Wars without ever being defeated or going into/being forced into an alliance with Napoleon (OK, Portugal also did, but wasn’t heavily involved). Britain provided massive subsidies to continental states fighting Napoleonic France – we were the paymasters of the operation. Some of the success was down to Britain’s superior economic and commercial model compare to France.
Some “sideshow”.
120 years later, we had to do it all over again.
I wonder if the French, British and Spanish who fought and died in the Peninsular War really considered it a “sideshow”.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
5 months ago

As a one-eyed Frenchman, I would have preferred a more heroic portrayal.
I cannot see a German saying something similar about Adolf

John Owens
John Owens
4 months ago

Agree. Bizarre.

John Owens
John Owens
4 months ago

Why do the French still love Napoleon? He was a narcissistic warmongering bloodthirsty tyrant who led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of French people, let alone all the others across Europe. And yet they love him! It’s like the Ugandans loving Idi Amin, or the Cambodians Pol Pot. What has Boney got to do to be cancelled? Cecil Rhodes was a saint in comparison, but they want to pull his statues down. They lecture the Americans and the British, but don’t take the napoleon log out of their own eyes.

I really don’t understand it

Kathleen Burnett
KB
Kathleen Burnett
5 months ago

Seems to have struck a raw nerve with the elite French. If Scott had wanted to make an historically accurate film he would have made a documentary. Note to French elite; this is entertainment. Criticise it on its artistic merits; you’d need to be very gullible to take Hollywood output as historical fact (Mel Gibson and Scot Nats excepted).

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
5 months ago

Great comment!

Michael Wicksteed
Michael Wicksteed
4 months ago

Hello Kathleen. I agree with your comment; it has struck a raw nerve; certainly among Allociné film reviewers but also among the general public in France, I feel. I’m English but work in Switzerland, after many years in France, and I try to understand what my French friends have to say. Certainly, there is bad feeling towards the film; I think most nations tend to feel piqued when a director from overseas- bearing in mind that most French colleagues I spoke to thought that Ridley Scott was American – delivers a negative portrayal of a man who is perceived to have changed France for the better.
Yes, one could say that leaving out the slavery issue was being kind; yes, one could say that leaving out the ‘Code’ was equally bizarre. One might also say that reinforcing English wartime tropes of his motivations stemming from ‘short man’ insecurity was unfair, as was the casting of a much younger Josephine; I could go on ( as many have). Each side has its own framing; understandable as tropes begun in times of immense conflict – and propaganda.
I watched the film after wilfully avoiding the critics’ take on it, and enjoyed it immensely. I found the cinematography and stpry telling amazing.Yes, it repeated anti-French cliches. Yes, I still found it convincing and compelling.
I hope we can do better at leaving behind re-heated debates based on the hardships of our (common) ancestors – no doubt founded in truths- and still enjoy this stunning film.
Sorry if I ended up sounding bland but I hope some will see past the bad faith interpretations of the film.

Shrunken Genepool
Shrunken Genepool
4 months ago

Loser